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A New and Practical Pathway to Immortality?

Well here’s an intriguing piece of research. It turns out that at least some genes in both animals and humans are still alive even after the animal itself is dead. So far it looks like they can remain active for up to 48 hours after their host has given up the ghost. (New Scientist, “Hundreds of genes seen sparking to life two days after death”).

At the least this gives us a new way to view the event we call death. It’s not a quick bang, but more of a whimper. In considering this finding this way, rather than a one-time shut-off, it is looking more like a planned shutdown, kind of like shutting down a nuclear plant where many things have to happen in a certain prescribed order to shut down properly.

But let’s think about this some more. If we can decode the shut-down pathway, would that give us some clues about how to abort the sequence? Could we instruct certain genes not to shut down so we could prolong life? Could this open up new forms of emergency medicine for patients who would otherwise have died?

But there’s more. Once you could do that it opens up other possibilities. Like applying the same kinds of approach to people who are healthy and living. Maybe there are ways of preprogramming genes to not enter into any shutdown sequence, as long as the body-owner doesn’t want that to happen. Maybe the body can instruct certain genes to go into shut-down mode only if the owner wants it.

This opens up yet other possibilities, namely those around the idea of genetic programming. That would involve programming genes to switch off and on as needed to prolong normal life spans. But that could also be applied to prolonging life to abnormal lifespans. Could that include immortality?

At first blush that sounds like an absurd idea, akin to perpetual motion machines. But the science of life extension in fact is making steady strides, most of which have been overlooked by most of us who are just concerned to enjoy the lives we have and are apparently ordained for us.

There’s the old stand-by, freezing. But that doesn’t really move the needle, just shifts it to somewhere else but doesn’t actually prolong your life span itself.

Then there’s exercise (see my post “Should exercise be compulsory?”) It works great, but it’s not going to move the needle much, just a few years, unless you get some illness and then all bets are off. Still it’s a reliable standby and the best thing we have so far.

But now we’ve got some new and intriguing possibilities in the form of drugs. One such is attracting a lot of interest now, namely the drug metformin. It’s usually prescribed for diabetics but it’s become clear that this has life-extending effects (Forbes, “Common Drug Has the Potential To Slow Aging, Boost Cancer Recovery”).

The race is on to see where these so-far unique life extension effects come from and then to develop more powerful drugs that have even more dramatic life-extending impacts. The FDA has recently approved a clinical study on precisely this drug for anti-aging prurposes. But we’re at least 10-20 years away from having an approved drug that not only works but avoids side-effects like cancer or going bald. Many of my readers might last the distance but unfortunately I would be on the edge if not well over it.

So that’s where this genetic stuff is truly interesting. It’s a potential new pathway to life extension and it could well do more than move the needle just a little. In principle it could move it a lot, maybe even to immortality if paired with other technologies or even conceivably on its own.

One of these other technologies is telomere engineering. Each of our chromosomes has ends called telomeres and these get shorter as we age. The race is already on to see if and how to reduce this shortening and even to reverse it. There have been some notable successes already (Science, “Harvard team successfully reverses the aging process in mice”) If we could do that in humans then suddenly immortality doesn’t look like such a crazy idea.

No doubt there are other pathways I don’t know about. But the various strands are slowly coming together on the life-extension front. It might not take as long as we think to have at least some major impacts, for example extending life so that we can all have a good quality sojourn on Planet Earth for at least 100 years, and even longer.

That brings up other heady issues, ethical, social, emotional, demographic and so on.

But that’s another story.

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